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PART   THREE

At the height of the summer of 1942, a young, thickset
man in the regulation step-collared coat and trousers of
the Air Force, with the insignia of a senior lieutenant on
his collar, emerged from the heavy oak doors of the army
hospital in Moscow, leaning on a stout, ebony walking-
stick. He was accompanied by a woman in a white smock.
The kerchief with a red cross, of the kind nurses wore
during the First World War, lent her kind, pretty face
a solemn expression. They halted on the porch. The
airman removed his crumpled, faded forage-cap and
awkwardly bent to kiss the nurse's hand. The nurse took
his head in both her hands and kissed his forehead. After
that, the airman, with a slightly rolling gait, quickly
descended the stairs and without looking back strode
down the asphalted embankment past the long hospital
building.
Patients in blue, yellow and brown pyjamas were
standing at the windows waving their hands, walking-
sticks or crutches and shouting parting advice to him. He
waved his hand in reply, but it was evident that he was
eager to get away from this big, grey building as quickly
as possible, and he turned his head away from the
windows to conceal his agitation. He walked quickly,
with a queer, springy step, leaning lightly on his walk-
ing-stick. Were it not for the soft creak that accompanied
every step, nobody would have thought that this well-
built, sturdy-looking, active man had no feet.
On his discharge from hospital, Alexei Meresyev was
sent to convalesce to the Air Force sanatorium near
Moscow. Major Struchkov was sent to the same place.
A car had been sent to take them to the sanatorium, but
Meresyev had told the hospital authorities that he had
relatives in Moscow and could not leave without visit-
ing them. He left his kit-bag with Struchkov and went